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International relations

US halts H-1B and other visas in blow to India and China talent

Trump bills new immigration ban as part of America-first recovery

U.S. President Trump speaks in the East Room at the White House.   © Reuters

NEW YORK/PALO ALTO, U.S. -- U.S. President Donald Trump barred the issuance of many new work visas under a proclamation signed Monday, including the marquee H-1B program used primarily by high-skilled immigrants from India and China.

The broad-based ban runs through the end of the year. It also covers the H-2B visa for temporary nonagricultural workers, the L-1 work visa for intracompany transfers, and certain instances of the J-1 exchange visitor visa. Exemptions include temporary food supply workers and medical workers fighting COVID-19.

Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google parent Alphabet and an Indian immigrant who got his start on an H-1B visa, was among the Big Tech executives who spoke out against the proclamation that day.

"Immigration has contributed immensely to America's economic success, making it a global leader in tech, and also Google the company it is today," Pichai tweeted. "Disappointed by today's proclamation -- we'll continue to stand with immigrants and work to expand opportunity for all."

Combined with the administration's immigration ban earlier this year targeting new green-card claims, the executive action will keep hundreds of thousands of people from entering the U.S. in 2020, according to an administration official quoted in news reports. Those already in the country or holding relevant visas are not affected.

"The order currently only suspends entry to the U.S. for these visa categories," said Diane Hernandez, an immigration attorney at law firm Hall Estill. "Employers should still be able to file H-1B petitions for individuals already in the U.S. in lawful status."

The Trump administration bills the move as part of efforts to rebuild the economy from new coronavirus by prioritizing American workers. Tens of millions in the U.S. have filed for unemployment benefits in the past few months.

The order hints at more immigration restrictions to come, although additional curbs will not likely be issued by executive order. Further policy is likely to be made through the federal rule-making process, which could take several months.

"Trump has made it clear that he sees restricting immigration as a key campaign issue, so it's likely that as the election draws closer we'll see further action on these issues," said immigration and employment lawyer Rebecca Bernhard, a partner at international law firm Dorsey & Whitney.

The proclamation comes as a big blow for foreign talent seeking employment in the U.S.

U.S. President Donald Trump has long pushed to restrict the entry of foreign workers into the U.S.   © Reuters

More than 420,000 applied for the 85,000 available H-1B work visas in fiscal 2019, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Nearly three-quarters, or 74.5%, were born in India, followed by mainland China at 11.8%.

Companies in the technology and professional services sectors, such as Deloitte, Google and Amazon.com, rely heavily on the visa scheme, having each sponsored large numbers of applications over the years.

In fiscal 2019, Google filed 10,577 H-1B visa applications, against Amazon.com Services' 7,705, IBM's 7,237, Microsoft's 6,041, Facebook's 3,212 and Apple's 1,708, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Since Trump took office, the U.S. has moved to curb the entry of foreign workers, including highly skilled ones.

"President Trump can extend it [the new ban] as long as he is president and there are no court-imposed injunctions preventing its implementation," said Hernandez.

"Employers can and should contact their U.S. representatives and senators to urge them to put pressure on the Trump administration to reverse course on this order, in the interest of U.S. business recovery and entrepreneurship," she added.

The H-1B visa's denial rate more than tripled to 33% in fiscal 2019 from 10% in fiscal 2016, according to an analysis by the Virginia-based National Foundation for American Policy.

Trump's "Buy American and Hire American" executive order of 2017 asked some departments of the executive branch to come up with H-1B reforms. In a briefing statement Monday, the White House said it intends to move to a merit-based immigration system that overhauls the H-1B program to "prioritize those workers who are offered the highest wage."

Such efforts have run into resistance from large corporations and immigrant communities.

But the virus, which has killed more than 120,000 in the U.S. and caused millions of job losses, created an opening for the administration to pursue drastic measures.

"Unfortunately, this executive order will not produce the desired result of relieving COVID-related job losses," said Hernandez at Hall Estill. "Despite figures cited in the [executive order], the majority of jobs lost during the pandemic have been in industries that do not typically require highly skilled workers."

"Although it sounds good to promote U.S. workers over foreign ones, the reality is that, for the most part, the two problems are mutually exclusive, and eventually, more harm than good will be done by closing our doors to foreign talent," she added.

During Trump's state visit to India earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the American president to rethink further restrictions on work visas, especially the H-1B, according to local media.

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